Saturday, 15 December 2007

What general practitioners, football coaches and rocket science have to do with conservation

Science plays a small but crucial role in conservation. It helps us to develop practical approaches to preserving biodiversity, ecological integrity and environmental values. We do this by identifying threats, work out the cause-effect relationships underlying these threats, and then clarify the means to counter them. In a more general context, conservation science guides our strategies, policies and management.

The results of scientific research should be to conservation what stars are to celestial navigation; when the skies are clear, the stars inform us whether we are heading towards our goal and how fast we are moving. And if we’re clever we could work out whether we’re on the right ship. The problem is often that our skies are far from clear. Conservation problems are complex and we rarely get a clear view of where we are heading and how to get there, let alone whether we are using the right tools.

People talk about something not being rocket science. Maybe this was a valid concept a century ago, but now rocket science is a lot more simple than conservation science. Conservation scientists who are trying to work out how to get to a conservation goal have to deal with ecology, politics, business and economics, social science, anthropology, environmental science, psychology, earth sciences, and a bit of legal studies thrown in for good measure. All these factors interact in often unexpected ways and understanding how to best intervene to reduce a threat is not easy. Compared to that, getting a rocket into space is peanuts (not sure where that expression came from—peanuts?). Just check the respective failure rates of rockets and conservation and you will get my point.

With so much complexity to deal with, how is conservation science trying to cope? Because of the scale of the problems, conservation scientists tend to be specialists on certain aspects of conservation problems. Most of us have backgrounds in ecology or other biological sciences. When faced with other science aspects of conservation we improvise as best as we can. Sometimes that works and sometime you end up writing really crappy economic analyses, like I did the other day. So when we need assistance from other science fields we ask a specialist for help. A weakness of that system is that you end up with a compilation of specialist input but not necessarily a good overview of the whole problem or anyone who understands what all the information together really means.

Lacking overview wouldn’t be a problem if we had rigorous measures in place to tell us how we were getting on. But most often we don’t, and once we decide on a certain heading or approach, we stick to it, often until it is too late to change course. For a parallel, think of medical sciences without general practitioners. Or a football team without a coach. The general practitioner should be able to tell us whether that nasty headache is just because we had too much wine the previous night, or because of that persistent neck injury, or something quite a bit nastier. Based on experience of the human body and its common failings, the practitioner will refer us to a specialist who will then try to deal with the core cause of our headache. Or if our team keeps losing games, we need a good coach to point out that if only that winger would go deep more often, link up with the accurate passes from the left back, thus drawing in the opponents defence, and freeing up our centre forward to go for goal.

Instead, conservation science often ends up with lots of specialist information: orangutan populations are dwindling, poverty is being reduced, oil palm prices are booming, the next governor’s election are coming up, people here don’t care about orangutans, and soil erosion is affecting coral reefs and ecotourism. But how do we usefully combine this to answer the simple question of what it takes to save some orangutan habitat? Which factors are actually important causes of particular conservation headaches? Should the focus be on economics, politics, psychology, or ecology?

I am neither a great fan of general practitioners, nor of most football coaches, and suspect that they get by on hunches and intuition rather than solid scientific analysis far more often than the public would want to know. But I actually suspect that conservation scientists are not all that different. Most of us address in our research a small fraction of the total problem, and may get a small answer but rarely if ever the full picture. How to resolve the issue is not clear to me, but good education is part of it. Most conservation courses still have a strong focus on the biological aspects of conservation. But these are only a small part of the total story. A good conservation curriculum should address all the science issues mentioned above, targeting students with broad thinking abilities and good strategic insights. I am not aware of any such conservation courses existing in the world—but please prove me wrong.

Going back to the general practitioners parallel, I hope that we won’t be seeing the same trends as in the medical sciences. Throughout much of the world in the last few decades, there has been an increase in the number and type of medical specialists, matched by a steady decrease in general practitioners. Among the reasons for this are the long working hours, the relative isolation of solo general practice, and the lower pay compared to that of most specialists. So let’s make sure that we reward our conservation generalists with a good, performance-based, financial compensation and pleasant working conditions. Let’s make sure they can speak openly to our senior management or make sure that they are senior management. And let’s pamper them a bit, because in the end their input will make or break our conservation work.

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